Panthers Training Camp Guarantees to Cut Deep

Panther Nation is eager for training camp. I am  for sure! I’m taking the kids to Fan Fest on Friday 7/25, and then heading to the first practice in Spartanburg on 7/26. Fans may be excited to see the football fly, but there are 90 athletes, who now call themselves Carolina Panthers, that will be focused on making the cut. For some, this is a non issue. The Panther stars, the Luke Kuechlys, Cam Newtons, and Charles Johnsons, can breath easy, focus on their game, and enjoy the fan festivities. For many, however, this will be a grueling, high pressure opportunity to make the squad. Each dropped pass, miss blitz pick-up, or poorly run route will be scrutinized and could just make Sundays a day off, rather than
a day at the office. NFL teams are allowed to have 90 man rosters to start camp. The first cuts will occur on August 26, where the roster slims to 76. On August 31, Dave Gettleman will have to pull out the cleaver and hack the roster down to the final 53, leaving 37 guys unsure of their NFL futures.

Some know from day one that they won’t make the team.  It’s hard to see a guy like DC Jefferson making this team. I’ve often wondered how these guys approach camp knowing their fate is predestined. What are their goals? Where do they find motivation throughout the process?  Is making the practice squad the goal? Or is it working on their game and gaining experience for year?

Everyone loves a Rudy story. The guy, who against the odds, scraps and claws his way onto an NFL team, like former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison or Panther fan favorite Brad Hooooooooover!  Let’s not kid ourselves though, it rarely happens. There are guys we know who have zero shot (barring the most catastrophic, coincidental series of events) of making this roster.

We like to think that guys can go out and battle their way onto a roster, but it’s not easy, frequent, or sometimes possible even.  Former Green Bay executive Andrew Bradt, remarked, “If you think training camps are about having an open competition, guess again. Teams have proprietary depth charts going into camp, different from the ones shared with the media.” He claims that the Rudy story can only occur in the “four and six spots that are open to competition, depending largely on numbers and personnel groupings rather than the performance of players on the bubble.” Contract status and manufactured expectations, earned or not, determine a large percentage of roster composition.

What are the numbers and personnel groups that terrify these guys on the bubble going into Panthers camp?
It’s pretty clear that the cut process isn’t determined by the athlete's performance alone. Even a novice like me understands that. At first glance, however, one would think that the positions with the best players, like Cam at QB or Luke MLB, would be the main determinant if a guy on the bubble makes the 53 man roster. The third quarterback is clearly being chopped. It’s nothing surprising, not even for Joe Webb and Matt Blanchard. It seems predictable even. (Honestly, I’d rather see Derek Anderson go and keep Webb instead.)We should then be able to look at the rosters, then the contracts, and the guys who “will” get chopped should almost jump off the page. It’s never that simple, especially when forecasting a final 53 man roster.

This dangerous game of camp roulette becomes more unpredictable when it becomes clear that seemingly unrelated positional battles and deficiencies factor substantially into a player’s status. If the contracts, proprietary players, and actual competition wasn’t enough, a guy’s performance, or lack thereof, at another position could determine your fate.

How terrifyingly daunting! The Rudy dream is in sight, only to be eclipsed by something beyond a player's control. The circumstances seemed ideal. A player has had a great camp. The contractual circumstances aren’t perfect, but as favorable as they realistically can be. The player has seemingly “earned” his spot, only to find himself cut because other positions are weak.  When Dave Gettleman’s finished hacking, he looks up from the scrap heap only to see a guy who didn’t “earn” his spot, but was only kept around because uncertainty loomed. It’s not just a lack of depth at that position that was the factor, it was personnel deficiency. It happens all the time, and it must wear on these guys psychologically. Perhaps this reality is why we covet the Rudy like story.

So if the cuts are this deep, where should we look to better understand this veiled relationship?

We need to study weaker positions that do have actual competitions, like receiver and tackle, not to see who wins the battle, but to see if a clear starting core ever emerges. If one doesn’t, it could push guys in seemingly unrelated contests off the roster to keep a guy around in case the starter disappoints. This is easy to see at a position like quarterback or defensive tackle, where the personnel is sound. It gets murkier at positions like running back, linebacker, and defensive back for the Carolina Panthers. At these positions the starting core is defined, but not entrenched entirely.

This relationship may be best exemplified at running back, where contractual circumstances and manufactured expectations create substantial limitations.  Last year, Carolina left camp with five active running backs on the roster (DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, Richie Brockel, Kenjon Barner, Armond Smith, and Jonathan Stewart (PUP list). There are some tough contractual obligations with Stewart and Williams, making Stewart proprietary and Williams the only real semblance of consistency at the position. Tolbert, who was brought in for his positional versatility (FB/RB), to many has outplayed these guys ahead of him.  So that leaves two spots to four guys to battle over. Today, ESPN’s David Newton forecasted that Williams, Stewart, and Tolbert are roster locks, and that team's investment in Gaffney and Barner’s special teams potential makes them the likely guys to win out.  That leaves Darrin Reaves and Michael Zordich going to camp without a shot and Brockel on the bubble. Newton suggested the Panthers may list Brockel at TE because of his versatility, but that is still a whopping six backs. Brockel is really a fullback that can just play up to a tight end at times. Listing him at tight end is just semantics. Newton suggested that Brockel would be listed as a fourth tight end.  If he correct, that means running back and tight end would comprise nine roster spots.

It’s hard to believe that Carolina can allocate such resources to running back and tight end, particularly with the uncertainty surrounding the wide receiver and offensive tackle positions. Last year, the same problem manifested in Carolina's secondary.  Gettleman pieced together an unproven bunch of young sprayers with a few journeyman vets. Rivera had to keep an extra defensive back on the roster as they tested for the right cocktail. This year the deficiencies, or maybe lack of clarity, surrounds the receiver rotation and offensive tackles. Rivera’s extra roster spot may be allocated to these positions, which means there has to be real, unwanted cuts elsewhere.

Some can see Rivera slimming down the secondary this season to add extra offensive roster spot. Newton’s recent roster assessment suggested that Tre Boston, this year’s 4th round selection, could be vulnerable.  In the same breath, Newton claimed that Tyler Gaffney’s future was seemingly secure.  If we cut Boston I will pissed, honestly.  We passed on some intriguing receivers in the draft to take him. It would hurt to see him not make the squad.

Even if Gettleman sacrificed Boston, that still could be an additional roster spot, forcing tough cuts to follow. Where would that cut come from? Either running back or tight end may not be as clear as Newton alludes. Maybe a guy like Barner isn’t as safe as many think. C3 crewmember, Chocolate Wonderland, floated that it could even be DeAngelo Williams.  I could really see Barner and Brockel being roster casualties, maybe even Ed Dickson at tight end.

I’ve gathered last year’s 53 man roster leaving camp with this year’s 90 man roster going into Spartanburg.  The are bound to be some painful cuts. What position do you see the cleaver aimed and what player has the most to fear throughout August?  Leave a comment below.